Food distribution queues at Shafiullah Ghata Camp, Bangladesh, October 2017. Credit: Kamila Stepien / Oxfam

To use or not to use biometrics? Help us answer the question

Aid, Humanitarian, ICT4D 1 Comment

Biometric technologies such as iris scanning, fingerprint or facial recognition, have opened up exciting new possibilities for humanitarian aid delivery, but the potential risks are high. That’s why Oxfam is looking for a consultant to conduct research into the safe use of biometrics in humanitarian response: is this an area you are working in?

Food distribution queues at Shafiullah Ghata Camp, Bangladesh, October 2017. Credit: Kamila Stepien / Oxfam

Food distribution queues at Shafiullah Ghata Camp, Bangladesh, October 2017. Credit: Kamila Stepien / Oxfam

Imagine if you had lost everything and the only way to access much-needed aid was to hand over your most personal data – providing an iris or finger scan. On the one hand you could be sure that only you could claim the aid intended for you. On the other, what if that data was somehow lost or compromised? The consequences could be severe, especially in conflict situations.

Imagine if you had lost everything and the only way to access much-needed aid was to hand over your most personal data – providing an iris or finger scan?
Against a backdrop of increased engagement with cash-based programming, humanitarian agencies are under pressure to be more transparent and accountable for the assistance they provide. Currently, Oxfam is working with a number of technologies such as Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS) to register and subsequently authenticate people’s identities. Where appropriate these may capture photos to help identify people, but they stop short of capturing any form of algorhythmic data (such as iris or fingerprint scans).

Biometrics refers to measurements related to human characteristics used for identification and authentication; it can include iris scanning, fingerprints or facial recognition. Seeking to address the potential for fraud, and to ensure greater accountability in our work, the opportunity of using biometrics as a technology to verify beneficiaries in our programmes is increasingly on the radar of many Oxfam country teams, however there is also limited evidence recorded and practical research as to the most effective and safest models for using biometric technologies in humanitarian programmes. And so much depends on the context! Which actors should be responsible for taking biometric measurements for example?

As far as we know,  use of biometric technology in the humanitarian sector so far has been the prerogative of the UN agencies
As far as we know, use of biometric technology in the humanitarian sector so far has been the prerogative of the UN agencies, primarily UNHCR and its implementing partners, with recent reports of four million enrolments across 43 countries using their BIMS and IrisGuard solutions. Benefits highlighted in particular from the use of IrisGuard system across countries in the Middle East hosting Syrian refugees include speed and dignity of access to assistance for recipients, elimination of fraud, and improved credibility with resettlement countries to name a few. However, because of the nature of the data, the margin for error when it comes to biometric data is exceptionally small compared to other technologies, enhancing the risk if we get the process or guidance wrong. The effects could be profound and long-lasting.

One often quoted phrase is that “security is only as strong, as its weakest link – and its weakest link is often the user. Not wanting to become the weakest link, in 2015 Oxfam self-imposed a moratorium on the use of biometrics – acknowledging that even if biometric authentication methods would inevitably find its way into the sector, given the number of unknowns around most effective governance models and risks of this incredibly sensitive data falling into the wrong hands, we felt it was best not to become an early adopter.

Not wanting to become the weakest link, in 2015 Oxfam self-imposed a moratorium on the use of biometrics
Since the moratorium was introduced, a number of external drivers have emerged that, at Oxfam we feel, increase the urgency for a clear guidance on engagement with biometrics, not least because of the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into place in May 2018. Biometric technology itself has become more widespread and affordable, but not necessarily fit for purpose or tailored for use in typical humanitarian operating contexts.

With this in mind, Oxfam’s ICT in Programme team is kicking off a research project to help inform Oxfam’s technology and governance choice over the next 3-5 years around secure, ethical and cost-effective use of biometric technologies. Time will tell whether we’ll be able to find a model that ticks all these boxes. In any case, our Responsible Programme Data policy will form the backbone of this research, with individuals rights to privacy and protection viewed as fundamental to any application standards, models or operational guidance.

the project is looking for expressions of interests from parties who are passionate about ethical, responsible and sustainable uses of technology in programmes
We hope the research will be led by an external agency, initiating and informing debate around the ethics and responsible uses of biometric technologies in the humanitarian sector and perhaps use of biometric for social impact more broadly– so will be sure to use up and coming events such as MERLTech Conference at the end of March 2018 and ICT4D Conference in May 2018 to share our findings. We would also like to hear from other aid agencies on their thoughts and research into the use of biometrics.

In the meantime, the project is looking for expressions of interests from parties who, like us at Oxfam are passionate about ethical, responsible and sustainable uses of technology in programmes and ideally also have background in either delivering digital technology projects or researching the impact of digital platforms and tools in the global South. View the research job description for more information. If you have thoughts or comments on the topic, do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Author
Anna Kondakhchyan

Anna Kondakhchyan

Anna is ICT in Programme Humanitarian Adviser. She advises on applications of information and communications technologies in Oxfam's humanitarian response and longer term resilience building programmes.